UNITED NATIONS – The U.N. Security Council responded to an upsurge in deadly attacks on hospitals and medical personnel, unanimously adopting a resolution Tuesday demanding that all parties to conflicts protect staff and facilities treating the wounded and sick.
The first-ever resolution focusing on the protection of hospitals and health workers in conflict zones urges all countries to bring those responsible for attacks to justice, something that has rarely happened.
The U.N.'s most powerful body reminded all governments and fighters that under international law any intentional attack against hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected is a war crime.
The resolution follows last Wednesday's bombing of an important hospital in the Syrian city of Aleppo that killed more than 50 people including patients and the only pediatrician in the area. In Aleppo Tuesday, a maternity hospital was struck by rocket fire killing at least 4 people.
But, as speaker after speaker lamented, hospitals and medical staff have also been attacked in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, South Sudan, Central African Republic and other conflict areas.
Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said an ICRC study found that within three years, 2,400 attacks against patients, health personnel, medical facilities, ambulances and other transport took place in 11 countries.
"That's more than two attacks per day, every day, for three years," he told the council after the vote.
Joanna Liu, international president of Doctors Without Borders, called it "an epidemic of attacks," declaring that "hospitals and patients have been dragged onto the battlefield."
Looking directly at the 15 Security Council members, she said the council is charged with protecting international peace and security yet four of the five veto-wielding permanent members — the United States, Russia, Britain and France — "have, to varying degrees, been associated with coalitions responsible for attacks on health structures over the last year."
"These include the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, the Russia-backed Syrian-led coalition," Liu said.
Without naming the United States, she referred to last week's U.S. Defense Department announcement that 16 military personnel involved in the mistaken aerial attack on a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz, Afghanistan last fall that killed 42 people were given administrative punishments — but would not face war crimes charges.
The medical charity has demanded an independent investigation and Liu stressed Tuesday that "perpetrators cannot be investigators, judges and juries."
She demanded that the resolution must not become "empty rhetoric" and urged the four powers, especially, to live up to their responsibilities.
"Medicine must not be a deadly occupation," Liu stressed. "Patients must not be slaughtered in their beds."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanded an end to attacks saying: "When so-called surgical strikes end up hitting surgical wards, something is deeply wrong."
He cited figures from Physicians for Human Rights documenting more than 360 attacks on 250 medical facilities in Syria since the conflict started in 2011 — and the killing of more than 730 medical personnel.
"Today, almost half of all medical facilities in Syria are now closed or only partially functioning," Ban said. "Millions of Syrians lack life-saving health care."
The resolution was drafted by five elected council members — New Zealand, Spain, Egypt, Japan and Uruguay.